Treating players equally is unfair

In one of the many John Wooden books that I have read, Wooden wrote about his treatment of players. He said that to treat each player equally would be unfair because each player was different. 

When I took over the men’s team in Denmark last season, the major complaint about the previous coach was his favoritism toward the two stars, and his constant criticism of the younger players. As players described it, the team had four classes or ranks, and the coach treated each group differently, which led to frustration.

I did not want to fall into the same behaviors, but I also did not want to overreact and treat the players equally because each player was different. As an example, three players missed our Thursday practices because they lived over an hour away. If I treated them exactly the same, I would not have started them because if a local player missed a practice, he did not start the following weekend. This was an example of treating players fairly, if unequally.

Throughout the years, many have written about Greg Popovich’s equal treatment of the Spurs, often citing the example of his willingness to yell at Tim Duncan just as quickly as he would yell at the 12th man. This has been mentioned as one of Pop’s strengths. Wooden was known to praise the starters very rarely, and reserved most of his praise for players who rarely played.

Despite perceptions, an article on Pounding the Rock, the San Antonio Spurs blog, suggested that Pop, like Wooden, treats players individually, not equally. Michael Erler wrote about a statement that Manu Gibobili made about Pop:

I think Ginobili meant, ‘He knows who is psychologically wired to respond to being unloaded on.’ The inference being that Pop also understands who can’t be yelled at, either.

Understanding the psychology of a player may be one of the most important skills of a coach. Some players respond better to being yelled at; a friend had a player tell her in the preseason that she tended to be a lazy player and that the coach should yell at her whenever she was lazy. The coach was new, and she gave the coach permission to be hard on her because she knew herself very well. On the other hand, some players feel that any kind of instruction is criticism and feel that they are picked upon when the coach gives individual corrections. Treating these players equally – either yelling at both or avoiding any negativity toward each – would help only one of the two players. Understanding the individuals, and treating them differently, is the best way to maximize the performance of the two players.

Erler continued:

I don’t think Pop treats Duncan and Ginobili the same as Parker and Green, but it’s not because Pop likes them more or thinks they’re more valuable to the team. I think it’s just because he’s found that Parker and Green will respond to be cajoled, constantly — whereas with the others, negative reinforcement doesn’t work the same.

That is a key point. One of the big negatives for players is when coaches are perceived to have favorites or to play favorites. This is when a coach will lose the trust of the players. Therefore, when treating players fairly, but not equally, the coach must allay those fears.

Erler wrote about Pop’s changing behaviors toward Ginobili, as over time, Pop stopped yelling at Ginobili after he made mistakes.

I think Pop also came to the conclusion that yelling at him and chastising him simply didn’t work. When he makes a bad decision, no one gets angrier at Ginobili than Ginobili himself. You see it on the floor; the gesticulations, the swearing to himself. It’s like a one-man opera of emotion. The last thing Ginobili needs to be told in these moments of anguish is how he screwed up. He knows. He sees the floor better than anybody and has a photographic memory.

The first point is important for coaches to learn: Yelling simply does not work with all players. It is not that the player ignores the coach or does not care; instead, as with Ginobili, it often can be that the player cares too much and is his or her own worst critic. Understanding the psychology is important because it alleviates some of the coach and player frustration, and it improves the coach-player dynamic.

The second point is equally important: Many coaches yell at players when the players know that they made the mistake. What’s the point? The coach is not instructing or helping the player. The coach is making him or herself feel better. I once watched a coach who yelled at his players after every mistake and frequently would add, loud enough so everyone heard him, “we practiced that yesterday.” The coach wanted everyone to know it was the player’s fault, not bad coaching. However, that’s terrible coaching! That coach is worried more about his ego than his players or the team. The feedback to a player after a mistake should be informational; otherwise, the coach’s yelling typically increases the frustration that the player already feels.

As with Wooden, Pop treats his players fairly. He learns their personality and he coaches them in a way that maximizes their performance. In that sense, his coaching is equal. He does not play favorites or hold back because of a player’s stature. Instead, he understands the individuals and their psychology and attempts to meet each players needs in the most effective way possible.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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